By Alison Beard - Andre Agassi started his tennis career “in diapers” and ended it at age 36, having won eight Grand Slam titles. Married (to fellow champion Steffi Graf) with two kids, he now oversees a foundation and a charter school in Las Vegas where accountability is the mantra. No courts on campus, though. “The idea that I succeed at your demise doesn’t fit the culture,” he explains.

HBR: In your autobiography, you confessed that you hate tennis. Why did you play for so long?

Agassi: At first it was a lack of alternatives. As a child, I knew nothing but success would be accepted. Or, if I didn’t succeed, it would take a toll on our family. So I put my head down and did the best I could. Then, being sent away to an academy at 13, the only way out was to succeed. You don’t know what else you’re going to do, and fear is one hell of a motivator. After that it becomes your life, and you have some success, and the world tells you that you should be thrilled. So you keep living the Groundhog Day, the hamster wheel. I thought that getting to number one was going to be the moment I made sense of my life. But it left me a little empty, and I spiraled down until something had to change.

Then you executed a legendary comeback. You’d had enough success, and earned enough money, to retire happily to Las Vegas at that point, so why keep at it?

It wouldn’t have been retiring happily. It would have been quitting miserably. I was at a critical point where if I made one more misstep, I wouldn’t get a chance to be on the court again, and the climb back would have been truly impossible. So I made a commitment to take ownership of my life. I started to get more connected, and then I just kept going with tangible daily goals. It wasn’t about a destination. Getting back to number one was something I was pretty convinced I’d never achieve. But that journey from rock bottom to the summit a second time was a great accomplishment for me. Without it I don’t know if I would believe in myself as much as I do when I face other challenges now.

You had epic match comebacks too. How did you develop that resilience?

It’s about recognizing that regardless of what the score is, the most important point is that next point. If you can get yourself into that state of mind, you just are who you are. People give you more credit for coming back than they do for blowing somebody out, but both require the same skill set. After a blowout, nobody says, “Wow, how strong and focused you are.” But you really are.

What distinguishes the best tennis players from the rest?

You need an arsenal of tools that give you an advantage over the field. It helps to have two or three possible game plans, especially in those matches when you’ve got to figure out a way to win. When you get on the court, it’s all about what you’ve done leading up to that day—whether you’ve done your homework, prepared right, trained hard enough, put enough fluids in your body. You have to do all those things a little bit better than the person you’ll be measured against. It’s really perfectionism.

Are there skills that your wife had as a competitor that you wish you’d had?

She had an athleticism over her peers that was quite a luxury. When she was in full form, she was just a horse that wasn’t going to be caught. For me, it wasn’t like that. I couldn’t just steamroll past people because I was such an athlete or talented in all these different ways. I had a couple of strengths, but I had to out-think everybody and implement my strategies one piece at a time, like a puzzle. That’s more exhausting, and you don’t get the results as consistently.

How did you learn to manage your emotions when you played?

I don’t know that I did. I’ve seen people use emotion, positive or negative, as a tool, and it works for them. But typically, the more you can remove emotion, the more efficient you’ll be. You can be an inch from winning but still miles away if you allow emotion to interfere with the last step. So you have to accept: the weather, heat, rain, stops and starts, the line calls, whatever your opponent is giving you, however tired or injured you are. There are so many things that can distract you from taking care of business. The only thing you can control is your engagement.

–Courtesy Harvard Business Review